I admit that my knowledge of Indian culture and geography is very limited. When I think of India I think of call centers, long weddings, reincarnation, a few Hindi myths and the highly publicized caste system, which I recently learned is outlawed although still practiced. Behind the Beautiful Forevers opened my eyes to the plight of the poorest citizens of India. Starvation, insanitary living conditions, illness, poor wages, hazardous work, child labor and political corruption are just some of the obstacles faced by those living in the Annawadi slum.
It was heartbreaking to read about the injustices they suffered, and the desolate poverty they experienced. There were times when I had to put the book down because it was so depressing, especially knowing that this was a true story and the events actually happened. Multiple people commit suicide, murders go unacknowledged by the authorities, hospitals refuse care, and the criminal "justice" system has little justice and a lot of corruption. And yet, even with the atrocities committed against the individuals and families chronicled in this book, the story is not without hope. Many of the characters, particularly in the younger generation, are still optimistic that things will change, and even among those who have accepted their condition, there are many that still have aspirations within the limits of their social and economic situations.
I admire Katherine Boo for undertaking this exploration of the lives of those living in such appalling conditions, although I do wonder what sort of effect her presence had on their lives. For example, in the author's note it's mentioned that the police were unhappy about the slumdwellers talking with Boo so I question whether the Hussain family was targeted (at least partly) by the police because of their participation in Boo's project. I also had questions about the morality of simply observing injustice without interfering for the sake of research. While many of the issues were societal and not easily addressed by one individual, I do think there were situations where Boo might have been able to make a positive impact. These issues are, of course, not limited to this book. They are common questions in the field of anthropology and the answers still aren't clear.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not an easy book to read, but it's incredibly worthwhile and educational. I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to better understand the plight of underprivileged people in our global society.